The RSPB is calling on the Westminster government to respond to the unfolding bird flu emergency and bring together a task force of experts to deal with the current outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) currently killing tens of thousands of wild birds across the UK.
A new virulent form of bird flu that originated in poultry in east Asia has now killed tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of wild birds in the UK and around the world. It has had major impacts on populations of wild geese and seabirds across Scotland, and in recent weeks thousands of birds have died in eastern and south-east England, with several species affected. There is also increasing evidence of impacts on birds of prey, particularly white-tailed eagle, red kite and buzzard. There have also now been incidences of the disease in mammals which have predated ailing birds.
When the disease first arrived in the UK in 2006, the then UK government brought together experts from disciplines such as virology, ecology, and veterinary science in order to plan and react to a fast-changing situation. The current UK government has so far resisted calls to develop a National HPAI Wild Bird Response Plan, putting wild birds and the poultry industry at further risk.
The RSPB’s director of conservation, Katie-jo Luxton said “This is an unprecedented situation. Tens of thousands of dead and dying seabirds and Defra seem to be happy to sit and do nothing. Now is the time to bring together experts and plan for the future to help not only wild birds but also the poultry farmers who have also been devasted by outbreaks.
There is so much about this disease that is unknown in wild birds that to short-sightedly refuse to try and learn more about how this virus is transmitted both geographically and between species is a dereliction of duty. Some experts are even suggesting that one species, the great skua could go extinct as a result of the disease.
We urgently need to expand our biological understanding of this virus, so we can hope to avoid future extinctions and develop the preventative measures required to reduce the risk of transference across species. Given our recent experience of the Covid pandemic, we are surprised that Government is dragging its heels on a proactive response.
Surveillance, research data collection and carcass testing are all needed alongside measures to reduce disturbance during localised HPAI outbreaks in wild birds, to minimise induced movements and added stress on sick birds.”
The RSPB is calling on the Westminster government to act now to develop and implement an immediate response plan to address HPAI in wild birds in England and well as working to co-ordinate the responses across the UK and plan for further possible outbreaks this winter. Each nation also needs seabird conservation strategies that will build resilience in our populations over the longer term.
In stark contrast, the Scottish Government has already begun this process with NatureScot announcing they are setting up a new task force to co-ordinate a national response to the avian influenza crisis in Scotland. The group will draw from experience across government, conservation organisations, including RSPB Scotland, local authorities and the research community. It will initially focus on the current outbreak, but also look ahead to future outbreaks and to taking action to protect and restore bird populations. The Welsh Government has also convened a group of experts and policy makers to discuss next steps in responding to this disease.
Katie-jo Luxton adds “In the medium term, we need stronger and better funded species conservation measures that can be implemented to make sure that vulnerable populations of seabirds and waterfowl are better able to withstand future outbreaks.”
If you come across dead or sick birds, do not touch them. Instead, please report them as soon as possible to the DEFRA helpline on 03459 33 55 77 or in Northern Ireland to DAERA on 0300 200 7840. More information on Avian Influenza, including what it is, what do to if you find a sick bird and updates on recent outbreaks can be found on the RSPB website.